I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for february 2014

Who's greedy?

2014-02-19 by Nick S., tagged as commerce, digital media

The Conversation's David Glance recently argued that copyright reform will drive innovation rather than attempts to stop copyright infringement. It's not clear to me why copyright reform and prosecution of copyright infringers should be the mutually exclusive exercise that the article's title implies — after all, why not just get rid of the law altogether if no enforcement of it is necessary? — but my main quibble with the article is its treatment of what Glance calls the "de facto application of copyright law", that is, the rules that people actually apply in practice irrespective what the Copyright Act might say.

Glance claims that "society is behaving collectively to determine what they consider fair and reasonable" in the making of recordings. His examples, however, refer only to the behaviour of copyright users, and it seems to me that he is really describing situations in which "copyright users are behaving collectively..." since the copyright-owning part of society is nowhere to be seen. Said examples include the claim that television viewers don't download infringing copies of television programmes (specifically, Game of Thrones) because they don't want to pay, but in order to circumvent time and place restrictions that they don't like.

Ed Hotan's comment contradicts this, though Hotan himself seems to support the downloaders: Game of Thrones was, in fact, available in Australia at the same time as it was in the US; its viewers just didn't want to pay the fee being asked by Foxtel. For Glance and Hotan, this seems to justify (or at least excuse) a television viewer who makes the unilateral determination that zero is a "fair" price according to some unspecified theory of fairness.

Now, the price being asked by Foxtel was pretty steep if all you wanted was Game of Thrones, since Foxtel's pricing is based on purchasing a whole year's worth of television. But the price being offered by downloaders was also pretty low, and doesn't appear to be justified by anything other than "I want it now". So who's being greedy here?

I've come to sense a certain loss of perspective in these debates, especially since the security of digital media ceased being my day-to-day concern at the conclusion of my last research contract. Hearing the howls of outrage at Australians' alleged inability to watch Game of Thrones at the same time as viewers in the US, one might take the watching of US television to be a human right. But jeez, guys, it's just a television programme, and not much more than an aimless compilation of sex and violence at that. George R. R. Martin himself seems to have lost interest in the original characters and plot by the time he got to Book 4.

If we don't want to pay the producer's price, we do have the choice to do without, just as most of us do without luxury yachts because we don't want to pay the prices being asked for them. So, if the media industry really is composed of greedy pigs not worthy of the fees that they want us to pay, why not really stick it to them by ignoring their output?

Software development without coding

2014-02-04 by Nick S., tagged as education, user interfaces

I recently found myself with contradictory reactions after reading an article on "citizen developers" on the ABC's Technology & Games site. Peter Fuller writes about the potential for ordinary users to develop their own software using "application platform-as-a-service" (aPaaS) technology. This technology is supposed to allow what software engineers call "domain experts" to construct their own domain-specific software without recourse to professional analysts and developers, at least for relatively simple applications.

My first reaction was that Fuller might be making a misguided attempt to promote software development as fun and easy. This reaction was probably also influenced by hearing the assertion that maths and science ought to be "fun" in order to attract school students in another recent ABC report, which had Australia's Chief Scientist bemoaning an alleged fall in education standards. I've long wondered if such advice might be misguided: mastering mathematics, science and engineering requires substantial effort, and anyone expecting fun and games is surely kidding themselves. Mastery might be all of rewarding, interesting and useful, but it's not fun in any conventional sense. As one of my harder-partying friends observed during our undergraduate days: "I can't really call myself a hedonist; I'm studying engineering."

Upon further reflection, I began to wonder if aPaaS or similar technology might also provide an opportunity for users to take control of their computers where they are willing to make an effort, but don't have the time to turn themselves into professional software developers. Could aPaaS be one approach to the critical computing that I pondered last month?

Having not investigated any aPaaS software myself, or observed any non-developers using it, I can't say for sure which reaction comes closer to the truth. My experience with integrated development environments hasn't been encouraging: they seem to encourage even professional software developers, let alone students and amateurs, to produce lazy code that satisfies the formal syntax of the language but omits error handling, meaningful comments and other qualities of well-made software. And I'm pretty sure I've heard similar claims about non-programming developers before — mostly recently, in the form of "mash-ups" — but I'm yet to see much useful software that is actually made this way.

Most likely, though, aPaaS can be used in both modes (as can integrated development environments): careful users can use them to increase their productivity and the control that they have over their computers, while superficial observers confuse cobbling together a few lego blocks with engineering. Fuller makes a similar point with a cooking analogy: many of us can put together a satisfying meal for a few friends, but we employ professional caterers when it comes to preparing a six-course meal for a hundred guests at a big event.